By Michel Marriott
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the most prominent and distinctive branches of the New York Public Library system, was found, where he is often found: surrounded by volumes of recorded wisdom of the ages.
Dr. Muhammad was working at his desk, set against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling shelves of books that dominate his otherwise rather austere Harlem office. Practically, all the books there were whispering African and African-American history into the now, a conversation in which the soft-spoken director is uniquely fluent.
July marked the second anniversary of his leadership of the Schomburg, as the center on 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard is affectionately known worldwide. Dr. Muhammad follows a quarter of a century of Howard Dodson Jr.’s stewardship of the center, an era in which the number of the center’s artifacts doubled to 10 million and its annual visitors, say Schomburg sources, tripled to 120,000 before Dr. Dodson retired.
While Dr. Muhammad, 41, commends his predecessor’s achievements, he says his tenure leading the Schomburg is signaling a new season for the center that began as a division of the 135th Street Branch Library in 1925 and evolved with the guidance – and personal collection – of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the distinguished Puerto Rican-born Black scholar and bibliophile.
Two years after Schomburg’s death in 1938, the division was renamed in his honor.
Today, Dr. Muhammad is visibly enthusiastic about further evolving the Schomburg. A major element of that effort, he says, is to attract younger visitors, luring them with an expanded and more diverse offering of media and voices – not simply those of scholars most comfortable speaking to other scholars.
“We wanted to essentially meet the audience half way,” he said, taking some time to speak with African Voices magazine. “If the audiences know a set of voices and speakers because they are blogging about it, we want to say, who among those folks are interesting and engaging? Let’s get them in here.”
Already, the Schomburg has provided wider forums for writers, artists, lawyers, figures from the nation’s nonprofit sectors dedicated to meaningful change – even comedians.
“In other words,” Dr. Muhammad, “scholars become one among many.”
At once youthful and elegantly composed, Dr. Muhammad, strikes an almost Obama-like bearing when he addresses such topics as the challenges and responsibilities of the black scholar, the vital importance of what he often describes as the black community’s “robust engagement” with its social and cultural legacy and the pressing philosophical questions of our times.
A husband and father of three children, (he carries freshly updated photos of them in his iPhone 5) Dr. Muhammad is clearly a man devoted to history. Yet, he appears most passionate when he talks about building avenues for young people to discover and understand their past so they might build better, brighter and more empowered futures. For Dr. Muhammad, history is as alive as the people who must live out its consequences and implications.
Doing this work, he suggests, is not some isolated, esoteric business.
“I want to be the Google of historic literacy,” he says.
Dr. Muhammad grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, in the studied shadow of the University of Chicago. His mother was a public school teacher on the city’s Black South Side, and his father was, and continues to be, a noted newspaper photographer.
Dr. Muhammad’s great-grandfather was Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975. And despite a U turn from his brush with corporate America (some 22 months working in public accounting at Deloitte & Touche LLP), he found his way to his life’s true calling – history.
“When I got to Deloitte & Touche, my interest had already been fundamentally transformed by this whole other world that I had only scratched the surface in college,” Dr. Muhammad recalls. “And it didn’t take much for me to realize that the incentives for being a damn good accountant ran counter to my interest in understanding the history of this country, the history of my people, how to process and relate to what I saw as an unjust world.”
He went on to leverage his degree in economics he earned at University of Pennsylvania to enter a Ph.D program in American history at Rutgers University. He received his doctorate in 2004 and was named an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group dedicated to criminal-justice reform in New York. After two years at Vera, he became a trailblazing history professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., researching and lecturing about race relations and Black criminality.
That work culminated in a groundbreaking book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010).
African Voices: Given the fact that your great grandfather was the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, your father is Ozier Muhammad, the noted Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, and you are the director of the Schomburg, is it safe to say that making and preserving history is a family business?
Khalil Muhammad: [He laughs] The family business… How funny is that? I suppose so.
Another way in which the question is often asked is that “Wasn’t it divinely set or ordained that you would be this way?” It’s easy to say, Well, obviously the great grandson of Elijah Muhammad would X, Y and Z. But I got a lot of cousins. I got a lot of uncles, and I can tell you that life ain’t been a bed of roses for my family given the legacy of my great grandfather, which is to say that it’s not obvious that anyone of us would be in this particular position. It would be expected that a certain number of us would continue in the religious tradition as leader. My great uncle Wallace, who only passed recently, certainly embodied in the most visible way the legacy of his father, even though they fundamentally disagreed. He still, nevertheless, embraced Islam and crafted whole communities of believers out of the African-American community.
AV: But my question is slightly different than that?
KM: The infrastructure that my great grandfather built and the legacy that he left behind absolutely shaped me in interesting ways. I wasn’t always consciousness of it. So I can’t say that ever since I was – pick a time – I was thinking that one day I would live a life like my great grandfather, where I got to write books about black history, got to speak to large audiences, shape the hearts and minds of people. I didn’t have that thought. But I was very much surrounded by people who, first and foremost, cared deeply about Black folks. And that made a difference for me. I also was aware that I came from a famous family.
The benefits of that were never tangible to me in a way. By the time I came of age, my family’s influence on the Nation of Islam had essentially all but disappeared.
AV: How old were you when Elijah Muhammad died?
KM: I was two and a half, just shy of my third year. And by ’77, leadership was changing hands. By 1980 [Louis] Farrakhan had taken over and my family was essentially estranged. So my years of coming of age were not my father’s years, which were very much about him being fully immersed in The Nation, going to the University of Islam, being the beneficiary of the wealth of The Nation. His was a formative influence.
And to that point, about the family business, my father took the lessons of his grandfather and his great uncle, who he was very close to, and had a deep attachment to Black people, Black history and culture. He took it in the secular route, which led him to be a journalist, to be a documentarian of a sort, and that absolutely influenced me in immeasurable ways.
AV: How were you introduced to Black history?
KM: My mother modeled [that] for me every day as a teacher, and she showed a lot of compassion for the poor Black folks she taught on the South Side of Chicago. But my father did it through journalism, the culture and the arts. He was the one who pressed me to read Black history. He’s the one who introduced me to Lerone Bennett when I was five years old. He’s the one who took me on assignments with him, particularly when he got to New York, from Mayor Koch press conferences to opening night on Broadway to random news stories around the city to sports events. So I was a child of journalism in a way that plugged me into the world.
AV: Let’s talk about your tenure as director of the Schomburg. This July you would have been at the center’s helm for two years. Do you believe its founder, Arturo Schomburg, would have been pleased with what you have been able to accomplish so far?
KM: I know he would be pleased in terms of the center becoming far more visible to generations of younger users. We’ve seen the visitors become younger and more engaged with the life of the institution. In other words, repeat visits, folks who feel like this is an institution they can claim as their own.
AV: How do you define these generations of younger visitors and how do they fit into your overall strategy for the Schomburg Center?
KM: I decided that the Schomburg Center would have to cultivate those younger audiences in order to maintain its reputation of being an international cultural center and a coming-of-age destination for this new generation like what it had been for the baby boomer generation and the one before. The Langston Hugheses and others were already 19 and in their 20s in the 1920s when they came to the Schomburg as a resource and grew up with the place. They built it and grew up with it. And then those who immediately came behind them, the baby boomers, those are the ones who really celebrated it. For them, they saw it as an indispensible resource for their political awareness, their cultural consciousness. You didn’t have to tell them to go there. They were going to find it one way or the other.
AV: But today?
KM: That’s not true today. And it hasn’t been true for a long time. So it means the direct connection to an institution like this has been weakened, severed in some instances, because it’s not just the kids, but it’s the parents too. The grandparents know. But the kids and the parents don’t know.
AV: Is this a question of the form, the fact that the Schomburg is essentially a library, old technology, in a time of digital media?
KM: We’ve been more than a library for a long time. The point I’m making is that every part of what we do has seen less commitment from younger people prior to my coming in. It’s not so much that they were once here and went away; they just became mature. The young people were here in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. But then the ones to come behind them – and that’s where I think my generation is instructive – were told that history was passé, that history is sort of [Francis] Fukuyama’s claim that capitalism has reached the end of history…This is about technology, this is about science, this is about moving forward, this about not being bogged down in what people like [scholar and social scientist] Joan McCord called the “culture of victimization,” hanging on to those memories of slavery and Jim Crow and the evils of white people. All of that sort of crystallized and became a major impediment to my generation really appreciating an institution like this.
AV: You believe that the response was actually that intellectualized? Isn’t history always with us? Isn’t history simply the future that hasn’t happened yet?
KM: I think American society, the culture of this country, is predicated on a lot of selective forgetting. The 1980s was a time of the amplification of a backlash against certain narratives of the past that denied this great arrival of a kind of Promised Land of equal opportunity. So someone like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rises to head the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], not as someone who is staunchly committed to civil rights, but as someone whose own race is a testament to the success of the civil rights movement and then uses it as a cudgel against those who claim that there’s still work to do.
And that’s all unfolding not too long ago. That’s unfolding at a moment when I’m in fifth grade. It made it a lot harder to teach certain kinds of narratives. And I have a very concrete sense of this.
For example, we know that a part of the repression of the Black power and Black Nationalist movements was repression of its cultural dimensions. So FBI surveillance didn’t just happen on the streets because people had guns and berets. It happened in Black bookstores. It happened in cultural arts centers. It happened, as is true in Memphis, for example, according to FBI surveillance record, where a tutoring program was teaching the wrong kind of Black history.
AV: So this “wrong kind of history” was a threat to the national status quo?
KM: Definitely a threat to the status quo. So it doesn’t surprise me that as leadership unfolded over the years that followed the late 1960s, there was a gradual dilution of this connection to this kind of robust civil engagement using the past as a guide of what the future should be, as a guide to protect the gains of equality, no matter how tenuous they were in the late 1960s.
We all know that year after year, when we talk about King, we get the sanitized Hallmark version of him that we see on television.
AV: The Dreamer.
KM: Yes, The Dreamer. But we also get, the kind of left version, one that continuously reminds us that he died not for civil rights, but for economic justice, for his fight against the [Vietnam] war.
AV: Are you concerned that too many the latter generations of Black people getting a kind of abbreviated, Cliff Notes version of their history? A history light?
KM: History has become commoditized. It’s not just a superficial reading of it. It’s one that denies complexity.
We saw the explosion of this at the intersection of rap and hip hop and cinema and clothing, which is not inherently a bad thing. But you can’t come to a full reconciliation of the life and legacy of Malcolm X by putting a hat on your head with a X cross, or by simply watching Spike Lee’s interpretation of Malcolm X. It’s a good starting point, but it is not the robust engagement. And so the question would be, where do you get it? Right? Because Spike has done his part. He has resuscitated the memory and legacy of this man through his own lens. That’s fine. That’s what filmmakers use. But then you ask the question, so where does the next step happen? And that’s the question that wasn’t being asked because no one was interested. It was good enough to hear it in very socially conscious rap lyrics; it was good enough to see it in the clothing, and it was even good enough to hear it in the analysis or critique of professors like Mike Dyson or Cornel West, who would build on that in higher education.
But higher education only touches a small fraction of all the Americans and even a smaller fraction of our community, which is to say then, where was it happening? And the answer is: nowhere, or very few sites of very thoughtful and culturally conscious engagement.
AV: But weren’t there was some thoughtful and culturally conscious engagement?
KM: This is of the same moment where you had the sort of rise of people like Leonard Jeffries, and Frances Cress Welsing, who were also part of a cultural nationalist moment. Even Afrocentricity is arcing in the 1980s as a culmination of all of their cultural work. But it is all generational. All those people who I named represent a particular generational cohort. Who was coming behind them? Who was being cultivated to pick up that work? This is not to pass judgment on whether it was an undiluted success, whether that strain of cultural engagement had it all figured out, or was perfect. That’s not the point. The point is that these were thoughtful people, passionate people, who, if they did nothing else, was going to make sure that putting Black people in the center of the story, whether it’s an African story, whether it is an European colonialism story, whether it’s an American story, they’re going to be there.
AV: That is the essence of Afrocentricity.
KM: That’s right. But no young people were coming behind it.
KM: I’ll tell you who is behind them, but I’m going to break this up into two parts. Outside of higher education, it would have been done at the site of places like the Schomburg, at other kinds of cultural art centers, museums, afterschool. It has been the whole infrastructure of folks doing what I consider the age old tradition of Saturday programming for folks who need to get in touch with their cultural roots. Italians do it. The Jews do it. Russians do it. Chinese do it. That’s where you would have expected to see it naturally.
AV: Okay, but you say something happened?
KM: Something broke between the parents who had been the purveyors of that cultural knowledge from the 20s to the 30s, to the 40s to the 60s. The parents at some point, my parents’ generation, decided that they wanted their kids to go to Wall Street, they wanted their kids to be physicians, they wanted their kids to be lawyers. They wanted their kids to assimilate into American institutions in ways that were not compatible with the old school approach, that grass roots survival mechanism where you need to know this history in order to survive in the world…They did it with the best of intentions. But too many traded on the opportunities of the 1980s, even if they were mostly either short lived, narrowly focused on very middle-class, privileged kids.
AV: Was this arc unique to African-Americans while other hyphenated Americans, who I assume took a similar arc, did not see the need to jettison their cultural backgrounds and histories?
KM: I think a lot of those hyphenated Americans did do the same thing, and disconnected for the same reasons. It’s just that when the small groups of them did not, nobody cared. It wasn’t a threat. So our commitment to these narratives have always been more of a threat to the status quo because the evidence of their necessity has always been right in front of our eyes.
AV: So our historical narrative is a counter narrative to the national one we are told and taught to embrace?
KM: It’s not only a counter narrative, [it is one] that’s constantly reproduced out of Black people’s oppression. So the Italian-American can’t visibly see evidence that Italian-Americans are still targeted and stigmatized, and therefore left out of the ladders of opportunity. Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, they don’t see it, so for them it’s a safe space to send their kids to these schools because it’s contained in this kind of cultural pride celebration space.
The threat to our engagement is that we’re learning not just the cultural pride piece, but we’re also learning the social and political analysis that says from this culture comes social change, and potentially revolution because the world still denigrates Black people.
There’s not that last piece for the Jewish-American, the Italian-American, for the Irish-American that the world still denigrates your people. So as long as the world continues to denigrate, exploit, disappear and incarcerate our folks, then the threat of that cultural engagement becoming the predicate, or the starting point, for a whole new generation of folks who raise their fists against the powers that be is there and real and visible.
AV: What about the state of higher education and its relationship to Black history?
KM: What happened to the kids of the Afrocentrists, the kids of the socially and culturally conscious who were producing knowledge, of the John Hope Franklins, those kids? They went to grad schools. They got PhDs in history, they got PhDs in African-American Studies. [Molefi Kete] Asante, one of his lasting legacies, is his work in establishing the first PhD granting African-American studies program in the country, of course, prior to Howard, and Harvard, etc. It’s the kids who came after, who were able to learn this material and go on to teach it, who are that legacy. That is a very small number of people.
My generational cohort, the few of us who were then inspired at some point along the way, decided to go into the academy. Unfortunately, the academy of the 60s and 70s and even 80s is not the academy of the 90s, 2000s. And 2010s. It’s a far less engaged academy. It’s an academy that increasingly rewards narrow focus and specialization. It’s an academy that has tightened the rigors of tenure because tenure is potentially on its decline and likely not to live another generation, certainly maybe not two. Which is to say that those of us who decided to go that path are not incentivized, are not encouraged, to take on these sort of questions of public intellectualism. It’s a bit counterintuitive to what we see and hear with the Cornel Wests, the Michael Dysons, the Melissa Harris-Perrys. But the truth is that they are outsized, larger than life figures, when it comes to Black academics and their voice in our society.
AV: Without tenure, are Black academics more vulnerable and less able to fully express their ideas, especially if they are seen as controversial, challenging?
KM: Your public intellectualism can be held against you in ways today that would not have been true a generation ago. There would have been a kind of celebration of your larger engagement and your attempt to wrestle with big ideas through the lens of your scholarship. What we have today is that my generation and those who are coming behind me are increasingly being encouraged not to do this kind of robust cultural work or social political analyst with the public, with our young people. They are encouraged to kind of stay in your lane. Focus on what you’re teaching in class, focus on your research and the rewards for that embedded in the university, not outside the university.
AV: That must create an incredibly chilling effect.
KM: It has an absolutely chilling effect. Part of it is that some of our folks, and I’m talking about my academic peers, don’t even realize that the system has co-opted their fire and passion because they are spending all of it asking, in some cases, some really powerful research questions. But they are only sharing it with the students who are fortunate enough to take a class with them; and you know, you get the range of accounting to physics, to marketing to psychology majors, which means that in one ear, out the other. [One] might change something inside, but they’re off to do other things with their time. We’re talking about touch points outside of the undergraduates, that might be 50, 100, 200 people. And that’s it. Whereas what came of age in generations past, what made the Schomburg such a lively place, was that it was about the production of knowledge that left here and went out into the world. It wouldn’t leave here and go into somebody’s classroom at Columbia or down at NYU. It left here and sped out through the streets.
AV: The narrowing of the channels of information seems contrary to the Information Age we live in today. How do you explain that?
KM: It’s counterintuitive. I think there are multiple messages. On one hand blogging, YouTube and Facebook, whatever, are ways for people who don’t have the credentials to communicate ideas, either pass on information or create it whole cloth that is absolutely distinctive and original. The problem is that a lot of it still just scratches the surface.
One of the things I talk a lot about in my public speaking is that there is a difference, as Carter G. Woodson once said, between information and education. So we have a lot of information at our fingertips. And we can push that information to our friend circles. We can use it as part of a counter narrative on some MoveOn.Org or Change.org campaign. But what we’re missing is, the minute that information is subject to another layer of challenge and critique and scrutiny, it dissolves under the weight of someone else’s platform or someone else’s credentials.
AV: For instance?
KM: A lot of people are organizing around Stop-and-Frisk. A lot of people are pushing out information about the latest police brutality case or latest form of injustice, etc. But the people who are still the gate keepers of at how to understand and interpret Stop-and-Frisk are people like Heather MacDonald at the Manhattan Institute.
When someone at the Manhattan Institute points out that statistics prove that policing works and lives have been saved, therefore, Stop-and-Frisk is an appropriate policy. And then David Brooks [The New York Times columnist] becomes the escalator, and he pushes it. It is far more impactful and meaningful than the Facebook posts on the other side, on the left where some activist has taken a YouTube video and put it on. It doesn’t mean that kind of guerilla information campaign won’t transform the hearts and minds of the masses or the silent Black and white majority on this issue. It just means that our other credentialed folks who are at the Brookings Institute or the Joint Center for Economic and Political Analyst down in D.C. need to step it up. They need to draw on the strengths of the academy of Black folk and white progressives in the academy to create those canon narratives.
AV: What role can the Schomburg play in this under your leadership?
KM: Part of it is that we have to make being smart sexy again. One of the most powerful lessons of the 60s generation is that they all started their activism by first reading and listening and learning. It’s not something we taught out kids.
We taught our kids to be smart, do well in school, speak perfect English, have the trappings of commitment and educational succeeds. We didn’t tell them what to read. We let other people start telling them what to read.
That’s the part of it that weakens the ability of our young people to be able to take their activism to the next level. Look what happened to the Occupy (Wall Street) movement. The biggest critique from every single line of the ideological divide, from left to right, and everything in the middle, was they don’t have a coherent message. They don’t know what they’re up against. And, of course, planting the seed of doubt about needing a coherent message is exactly the best way to actually discredit it. One of the best arguments to that I remember was that very few social movements have had a coherent message. There are multiple messages.
That’s Number one. Number two: the only way you get to a coherent message is that you train everybody based on a common set of readings and understanding of what the problem is so then everyone buys into the kind of message. Then it only comes naturally.
AV: You’re talking about a common language of struggle?
KM: That was the model of the civil rights movement. One way or the other, you need to be smart and savvy enough to anticipate what the other side is going to do to you, which is to divide and conquer, or to discredit your message.
AV: So what happens in this regard at the Schomburg?
KM: We practice what we preach. There’s no rocket science here. The difference between my leadership and the leadership in the past has been that I am trying to make smart sexy in as transparent and visible of a way to as many people as possible. There is a time and a place for everything, there’s a season for everything. The season that preceded me was the season that was dedicated to the institutionalizing of the study of Black people, to essentially building a canon of African and African-American scholarship, literature.
I don’t want to encourage the next generation to be Wikipedia readers, or any kind of short hand, Cliffs Notes approach to the past. I want to make clear and visible to them that part of sustaining your own humanity, part of helping to shape the content of their citizenship, is by making clear that if you don’t read, if you don’t study, if don’t develop and own arguments that have been mounted against you and your future, then you will be a victim of somebody else’s design on your life.